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Philosophy of Education

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Philosophy of education is a field characterized not only by broad theoretical eclecticism but also by a perennial dispute, which started in the mid-twentieth century, over what the scope and purposes of the discipline even ought to be. In the "Philosophy of Education" article that was included in the previous edition of this encyclopedia, William Frankena wrote, "In a sense there is no such thing as the philosophy of education" (p. 101). During certain periods of the history of the philosophy of education, there have been dominant perspectives, to be sure: At one time, the field was defined around canonical works on education by great philosophers (Plato of ancient Greece, the eighteenth-century Swiss-born Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others); at other times, the field was dominated, in the United States at least, by the figure of John Dewey (1859–1952) and educational Progressivism; at other times, the field was characterized by an austere analytical approach that explicitly rejected much of what had come before in the field as not even being proper "philosophy" at all. But even during these periods of dominance there were sharp internal disputes within the field (such as feminist criticisms of the "Great Man" approach to philosophy of education and vigorous critiques of the analytical method). Such disputes can be read off the history of the professional societies, journals, and graduate programs that institutionalize the field, and they can be documented through a succession of previous encyclopedia articles, which by definition attempt to define and delimit their subject matter.

These sorts of struggles over the maintenance of the disciplinary boundary, and the attempt to define and enforce certain methods as paramount, are hardly unique to philosophy of education. But such concerns have so preoccupied its practitioners that at times these very questions seem to become the substance of the discipline, nearly to the exclusion of thinking about actual educational problems. And so it is not very surprising to find, for example, a book such as Philosophers on Education. Consisting of a series of essays written by professional philosophers entirely outside the discipline of philosophy of education, the collection cites almost none of the work published within the discipline; because the philosophers have no doubts about the status of the discipline of philosophy of education, they have few qualms about speaking authoritatively about what philosophy has to say to educators. On the other hand, a fruitful topic for reflection is whether a more self-critical approach to philosophy of education, even if at times it seems to be pulling up its own roots for examination, might prove more productive for thinking about education, because this very tendency toward self-criticism keeps fundamental questions alive and open to reexamination.

Any encyclopedia article must take a stance in relation to such disputes. However much one attempts to be comprehensive and dispassionate in describing the scope and purpose of a field, it is impossible to write anything about it without imagining some argument, somewhere, that would put such claims to challenge. This is especially true of "categorical" approaches, that is, those built around a list of types of philosophy of education, or of discrete schools of thought, or of specific disciplinary methods. During the period of particular diversity and interdisciplinarity in the field that has continued into the twenty-first century, such characterizations seem especially artificial–but even worse than this, potentially imperial and exclusionary. And so the challenge is to find a way of characterizing the field that is true to its eclecticism but that also looks back reflexively at the effects of such characterizations, including itself, in the dynamics of disciplinary boundary maintenance and methodological rule-setting that are continually under dispute.

One way to begin such an examination is by thinking about the impulses that draw one into this activity at all: What is philosophy of education for? Perhaps these impulses can be more easily generalized about the field than any particular set of categories, schools of thought, or disciplinary methods. Moreover, these impulses cut across and interrelate approaches that might otherwise look quite different. And they coexist as impulses within broad philosophical movements, and even within the thought of individual philosophers themselves, sometimes conflicting in a way that might help explain the tendency toward reflexive self-examination and uncertainty that so exercises philosophy of education as a field.

The Prescriptive Impulse

The first impulse is prescriptive. In many respects this is the oldest and most pervasive inclination: to offer a philosophically defended conception of what the aims and activities of teaching ought to be. In some instances, as in Plato's Republic, these prescriptions derive from an overall utopian vision; in other instances, such as seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education or Rousseau's Émile, they derive from a fairly detailed reconception of what the day-to-day activities of teaching should look like; in still other instances, such prescriptions are derived from other social or moral principles, as in various Kantian views of education (even though eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant himself had very little to say on the subject). These prescriptive inclinations are in many respects what people expect from philosophy of education: a wiser perspective, a more encompassing social vision, a sense of inspiration and higher purpose. It is what people usually mean when they talk about having a "philosophy of education."

A broad range of perspectives in the field share this prescriptive impulse: many of these perspectives can be comprised in what was once called the "isms" approach (perennialism, idealism, realism, Thomism, and so on)–the idea that a set of philosophical premises could generate a comprehensive and consistent educational program. For many years, working out the details of these "philosophies of education" was considered the main substance of the field, and the debates among the "isms" were typically at the very basic level debates among fundamentally different philosophical premises. An implication of this approach was that disagreements tended to be broadly "paradigmatic" in the sense that they were based on all-or-none commitments; one could not, of course, talk about a synthesis of realist and idealist worldviews.

One wag has suggested that the "isms" have more recently been replaced by the "ists"–less purely philosophical and more social/political theories that now typify many scholars working in philosophy of education (Marxists, feminists, multiculturalists, postmodernists, and so on). These will be characterized as critically oriented philosophies below, but at this stage it is important to see that these perspectives can be equally driven by the prescriptive impulse: many writers (for example, neo-Marxist advocates of Paulo Freire's "critical pedagogy") offer quite explicit accounts of how education ought to proceed, what it is for, and whose interests it ought to serve.

The Analytical Impulse

The second impulse that drives much of philosophy of education is analytical. In a broad sense this includes not only philosophical approaches specifically termed "analytical philosophy" (such as conceptual analysis or ordinary language analysis), but also a broader orientation that approaches the philosophical task as spelling out a set of rational conditions that educational aims and practices ought to satisfy, while leaving it up to other public deliberative processes to work out what they might be in specific. In this enlarged sense, the analytical impulse can be seen not only in analytical philosophy per se but also in studies that focus on the logical and epistemological criteria of critical thinking; in the diagnosis of informal fallacies in reasoning; in certain kinds of liberal theory that spell out broad principles of rights and justice but that remain silent on the specific ends that education ought to serve; and even in some versions of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas's theory, which proposes a structure of communicative deliberation in which conversations must satisfy what he calls a set of general "validity" claims, but which does not specify or constrain in advance what that process of deliberation might yield.

The analytical impulse is often seen as expressing a certain philosophical modesty: that philosophers do not prescribe to others what their educational choices ought to be, but simply try to clarify the rational procedures by which those choices should be arrived at. Here metaphors such as referees who try to adjudicate an ongoing activity but remain nonpartisan within it, or groundskeepers who pull up weeds and prepare the soil but do not decide what to plant, tend to predominate in how this version of philosophy of education is presented and justified to others. The idea that philosophy provides a set of tools, and that "doing philosophy of education" (as opposed to "having a philosophy of education") offers a more workmanlike self-conception of the philosopher, stands in sharp contrast with the idea of philosophy as a system-building endeavor.

Of course, it must be said that this impulse is not entirely free of the prescriptive inclination, either. For one thing, there is a prescriptiveness about the very tools, criteria, principles, and analytical distinctions that get imported into how problems are framed. These are implicitly (and often explicitly) presented as educational ideals themselves: promoting critical thinking or fostering the conditions for Habermasian communication in the classroom, for example. However rationally defended these might be, they will undoubtedly appear to some as imposed from "on high." Moreover, at a deeper level, the analytic/prescriptive distinction is less than clear-cut: a theory of logic, or a theory of communication, however purely "procedural" it aspires to be, always expresses conceptions of human nature, of society, of knowledge, of language, that contains social and cultural elements that might appear "natural" or "neutral" to the advocates of those procedures, but that will be regarded as foreign and particularistic by others ("why must I justify my educational choices by your criteria?"). This is not meant as a criticism of the analytical orientation, but it just shows how these impulses can and do coexist, even within accounts that regard themselves as primarily one or the other.

The Critical Impulse

Similarly, the third impulse, a critical orientation, can coexist with either or both of the others. The critical impulse, like the analytical one, shares the characteristic of trying to clear the ground of misconceptions and ideologies, where these misrepresent the needs and interests of disadvantaged groups; like the prescriptive impulse, the critical impulse is driven by a positive conception of a better, more just and equitable, society. Where the critical impulse differs from the others is in its conception of the contribution philosophy can play in serving these ends. From this orientation, philosophy is not just a set of tools or an abstract, programmatic theory; it is itself a substantive personal and political commitment, and it grows out of deeper inclinations to protect and serve the interests of specific groups. Hence the key philosophical ideas stressed in critically oriented philosophies of education (reflection, counterhegemony, a critique of power, an emphasis upon difference, and so on) derive their force from their capacity to challenge a presumably oppressive dominant society and enable put-upon individuals and groups to recognize and question their circumstances and to be moved to change them.

As there are prescriptive and analytical elements in critically oriented philosophies of education, so there can be critical elements in the others. Philosophers of education more driven by a prescriptive or analytical impulse can and do share many of the same social and political commitments as critically oriented philosophers of education; and some of them may see their work as ultimately serving many of the same goals of criticizing hegemonic ideologies and promoting human emancipation. This is why these three impulses or orientations must not be seen as simple categories to which particular philosophies (or philosophers) can be assigned. Stressing their character as impulses highlights the motivational qualities that underlie, and frequently drive, the adoption of particular philosophical views. While philosophers tend to stress the force of argument in driving their adoption of such views, and while they do certainly change their minds because of argument and evidence, at some deeper level they are less prone to changing the very impulses that drive and give vigor to their philosophical investigations. By stressing the ways in which all three impulses can coexist within different philosophical schools of thought, and even within the inclinations of a given philosopher, this account highlights the complex and sometimes even contradictory character of the philosophical spirit. When philosophers of education teach or speak about their views, although they certainly put forth arguments, quotations of and references to literature, and so forth, at a deeper level they are appealing to a shared impulse in their audience, one that is more difficult to argue for directly, and without which the arguments themselves are unlikely to take hold.

Implications of the Impulses for Philosophy of Education

Given the existence of these three impulses, how can they help in providing an overview of the field of philosophy of education that does not fall into arguments about disciplinary boundary maintenance? First, these very broad orientations are in many respects easier to generalize within the field than would be any specific set of disciplinary criteria; many different kinds of philosophy of education can manifest these sorts of inclinations. Indeed, it makes for strange bedfellows when people consider that despite their vigorous paradigmatic differences they are actually motivated by very similar underlying philosophical commitments. Perhaps this recognition might create a stronger incentive for them to engage one another respectfully across those differences.

Second, it is beneficial for philosophers to consider that the validity they attribute to certain kinds of arguments may not be driven simply by the objective force of those arguments, but also by a particular appeal those kinds of arguments have for them. This sort of reflectiveness might be fruitful for various reasons, but a significant benefit could be in raising a person's appreciation for why others may not be moved by the arguments that seem so patently obvious to that person; and why the force of argument alone may not be sufficient to generate philosophical agreement or reconcile disagreement. Given the pervasively eclectic and interdisciplinary nature of the field of philosophy of education, such a spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness, while not needing to be unbounded entirely, would be a valuable corrective to the historical tendency to establish the methodsor the philosophical school that will separate proper philosophy of education from the imposters.

Advocates of more prescriptive approaches typically buttress their case for dominance by reference to canonical Great Works (Plato, ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Dewey). This sort of system-building across epistemological, ethical, and social/political issues is what the great philosophers do, and it is revealing that for them philosophy of education was rarely seen as a distinct area of inquiry but merely the working out in practice of implications for teaching and learning that were derived from their larger positions about truth, value, justice, and so on.

Advocates of more analytical approaches, as noted, tend to put more reliance upon the tools of philosophical investigation, and less on particular authors or sources. In the twentieth century, versions of these approaches tended to dominate philosophy of education, especially in the English-speaking world, as they have many departments of philosophy itself. Indeed, when one surveys accounts of the field of philosophy of education from the 1990s forward, they nearly all chart the history as one of the rise to dominance of an analytical approach and then a succession of critiques and attacks upon it.

Advocates of more critical approaches suffer from a particular difficulty–carrying out their philosophical work in a way that is consistent with their broader commitments. Naturally, any philosophical approach aspires to consistency of some sort; but to the extent that critically oriented philosophers are concerned with challenging power structures, hegemonic belief systems, and universalisms that obscure, not to say squelch, the particular beliefs, values, and experiences of those whom they seem to empower, such philosophers must also endeavor to avoid these potentially oppressive tendencies in their own writing and teaching. This tension is perhaps felt most acutely by contemporary post-modern philosophers of education, but it can be seen in much of the work of neo-Marxists, critical theorists, feminists, and Foucauldians as well: how to argue for and promote an emancipatory approach to education that does not itself fall into the habits of exclusionary language, authoritative (if not authoritarian) postures, and universalizing generalizations that are excoriated when detected in the work of others.


This entry has tried to provide an overview of how the field of philosophy of education has seen itself, and it has recounted major elements in the narratives by which the history of the field has been traced by others. At the same time it has tried to reveal problems with the ways in which these different accounts have been driven in part by various agendas to define a scope and boundary for the field, and often to privilege one or another approach to philosophy of education, even when they have endeavored to be comprehensive and fair to all views. This entry has taken a different approach, first, by resisting the temptation to provide a single definition or characterization of the field; and, second, by stressing not schools of thought or methodological divisions as the categories for thinking about the field, but rather the underlying inclinations, or impulses, that animate philosophical inquiry. As noted, for a field that tends to resist and argue over every attempt to define it, such caution is probably prudent, but it has an added benefit as well. When philosophers think about the impulses that motivate their areas of inquiry and ways of thinking about them, they relate their philosophical work not solely to an abstract order of truth but to themselves; and it is a short step from that recognition to extending that way of thinking to others as well. The generosity of outlook that results might be the one thing that all philosophers of education can share.



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